Tools now make the rules: Drones and humanity

One of the wonderful things about the interweb is that it can be one great big serendipity engine.  For some of my reading, I like to rely on aggregation (or ‘curation’) sites, such as The Browser.  Each day they serve up a mix of stories, which they find interesting, and hope that their readers will, too.  Today, two stories, one about drones and one about virtual reality, caught my attention.  After reading both of them, I was fascinated by the connections between them.


Droning On

The first article is from the New York Times and is about drones; to be more precise, it is about ‘drone pilots’.  Lots of ink is spilled about drones, some of it here on KOW: much is made about the ethics of drone warfare, and the impact that drones have on their victims, their victims’ families, and war in general, for instance.  This article, though, speaks more to the effect that drones have on their pilots.  Some speak of the ‘strange’ nature of killing people in Afghanistan whilst sitting in Up-State New York:

Colonel Brenton acknowledges the peculiar new disconnect of fighting a telewar with a joystick and a throttle from his padded seat in American suburbia….Now he steps out of a dark room of video screens, his adrenaline still surging after squeezing the trigger, and commutes home past fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to help with homework — but always alone with what he has done. “It’s a strange feeling,” he said. “No one in my immediate environment is aware of anything that occurred.”

Here we see an aspect of distance not always considered: yes the pilots are distanced from their targets, but at the same time, they are distanced from their ‘comrades’.  The normal ‘team environment’ that encapsulates combat (squadron ground crews wishing one well and cheering on return; bomber crews splitting the work and sharing the danger) is gone.

This aspect of distance can be contrasted with an perhaps surprising one: pilots, despite the geographic separation and relative isolation from their peers, can sometimes find themselves too close to their targets.

Routinely thought of as robots that turn wars into sanitized video games, the drones have powerful cameras that bring war straight into a pilot’s face.

“You see them [the targets] wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night,” said Dave, an Air Force major who flew drones from 2007 to 2009 …

“They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone pilots. “At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.”

“There was good reason for killing the people that I did, and I go through it in my head over and over and over,” said Will, an Air Force officer who was a pilot at Creech and now trains others at Holloman. “But you never forget about it. It never just fades away, I don’t think — not for me.”

In fact, some pilots choose to work with drones because they feel more–not less–engaged with the battlefield.

Many drone pilots once flew in the air themselves but switched to drones out of a sense of the inevitable — or if they flew cargo planes, to feel closer to the war. “You definitely feel more connected to the guys, the battle,” said Dave…who flew C-130 transport planes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Drones conjure up several images in the popular imagination: remote, high-tech, solitary.  One has the impression that they are on the periphery, either augmenting resources, in places like Afghanistan, or working where no other assets can, like in Yemen or the hinterland of Pakistan.  But the reality is that these machines are far more mainstream. Far from some ‘future weapon’, drones are here in a big way today.

The complexities will only grow as the military struggles to keep up with a near insatiable demand for drones. The Air Force now has more than 1,300 drone pilots, about 300 less than it needs, stationed at 13 or more bases across the United States. They fly the unmanned aircraft mostly in Afghanistan. (The numbers do not include the classified program of the C.I.A., which conducts drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.) Although the Afghan war is winding down, the military expects drones to help compensate for fewer troops on the ground.

By 2015, the Pentagon projects that the Air Force will need more than 2,000 drone pilots for combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day worldwide. The Air Force is already training more drone pilots — 350 last year — than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

If the sentiments expressed in this article are accurate and representative, they are seemingly at odds with much of the ‘conventional’ thinking on the rise of ‘machine warfare’.  Writers, such as Christopher Coker, speak of Waging War Without Warriors, and envisage dystopian futures where machines take over from people.  James Der Darian makes much of the interconnectivity between the elements of what he calls the MIME-NET (military-industrial-media-entertainment network), where the video game-ishness of drones features highly:

This article gives us pause to re-consider: humans may not yet be written out of the script.

Who are you calling a tool?

The second article that I read was written by a former computer engineer and tech venture capitalist.  In this article, the author warns against the dangers of the virtual world.  The seemingly innocuous gadgets we love are having a profound effect on us, as humans.

I see people walking down the street, eyes fixed on the screens of their mobile phones, ears plugged into their iPods, oblivious to their surroundings…to reality itself. They are not managing their tools; their tools are managing them. Tools now make the rules, and we struggle to keep up.

We struggle because our brains (and our minds) are conditioned, over the course of thousands of years, to the very real world.  Now, in a matter of a few years, we have taken a quantum leap into a very virtual world.  The on ramp into that world is provided by the various electronic devices we have made, but which we perhaps underestimate.

Our brains can’t deal effectively with virtual environments. This makes perfect sense: The challenge they pose is barely half a generation old, yet our minds have been shaped by other challenges that date back thousands of generations.  And as we take bodies and brains adapted to physical space and immerse them in virtual worlds, they are not only unable to cope, they respond in unanticipated ways.

The ‘thin end of the wedge’ is perhaps netlag, the feeling of displacement one gets when returning to the real world after a prolonged session online.  This is a physical feeling, a real effect of disorientation generated by a virtual environment.  Some of you Readers (especially those who came to this Kings of War site expecting another one) may have experienced this.  Moving up the wedge from the pointy to the thick, we might arrive at something akin to that which is described by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation: situations where we can no longer distinguish between the original and the copy; situations where we prefer the copy to the original; situations where there is no original.

Connecting the Dots

And so, after reading both of these articles on my smartphone, speeding along above the ‘real’ city (dirty, hot, decrepit, full of the noise made by humans–sellers, buyers, travellers) in my ‘virtual’ cocoon (clean, air conditioned, shiny-new, full of noise made by monitors displaying advertising commercials–models, actors, and marketers), I wondered if the first article wasn’t a bit too optimistic in its pessimism.  Is the world of drones still imperfect enough to be human?  Is the friction of human contact still present, acting as a kind of anchor, tethering the drone pilots, the drones, and the drone targets in a modicum of reality?  Are we in control of our machines?

Or was the second article too pessimistic in its optimism?  If our iPods can turn on us, turning us from tool-users into tool-subjects, what makes us so sure that drones won’t do the same thing?  Can we take for granted our humanity?  Or are we capable, as a species, of creating situations whereby we fool ourselves into believing that we are in control?

I don’t think we are ‘over the line’ yet, but there are signs that we are moving in a direction that will take us away from the bedrock of our past.  Contained in the article on drones was a small fact that didn’t register with me until after I read the article on the supposed dangers of virtual reality.  Facts, of course, don’t speak for themselves: we speak for them and can interpret them in a host of different ways.  But this one certainly got me thinking:

Until this year, drone pilots went through traditional flight training before learning how to operate [drones]… Now the pilots are on a fast track and spend only 40 hours in a basic Cessna-type plane before starting their drone training.

Are we moving away from the real and towards something where…well, who knows what.

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3 thoughts on “Tools now make the rules: Drones and humanity

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